Do Blood and Guts Make for Good Presidencies?

While historians may eventually award extra credit for spending American blood and treasure, ordinary Americans generally don't.

|

Popularity hounds that they are, American presidents pay close attention to two sets of polls. The first is the presidential approval rating taken regularly in polls of ordinary Americans. The second is the perennial presidential ranking survey, where historians and political scientists are asked to judge presidential "greatness."

"Legacy"-minded presidents might learn some strange lessons from these scholarly surveys. For instance, Harry Truman, who launched our first major undeclared war, routinely beats his successor Dwight Eisenhower, who kept the peace during hair-trigger tensions with the Soviets. Similarly, the odious Woodrow Wilson, who brought the United States into the pointless carnage of World War I, is a top 10 favorite for historians, while Warren Harding, who followed Wilson with peaceful "normalcy"—is nearly always dead last.

I've long thought there was something perverse in the way scholarly surveys seem to award bonus points for being a "warrior president." (Was the Teapot Dome scandal really worse than 117,000 dead doughboys?)

Last week, economists David Henderson and Zachary Gouchenour released a study, "War and Presidential Greatness," that provides empirical support for my simmering suspicion. It's a sober, scholarly paper that comes to an absolutely horrifying conclusion: "military deaths as a percentage of population is a major determinant of greatness in the eyes of historians."

War: Huh, yeah! What is it good for? Boosting your presidential ranking, apparently.

Henderson and Gouchenour investigated "the connection between presidents' greatness rankings and the intensity of the wars that those presidents carried on. Using multiple regression analysis, we compare the effect of war intensity with other explanations offered by previous researchers," such as intellectual prowess, GDP growth and involvement in major scandal. They found "a strong positive correlation between the number of Americans killed during a president's time in office and the president's rating."

Presidents have long recognized the "wartime bonus" doled out by historians. Henderson and Gouchenour quote Teddy Roosevelt: "if Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would know his name now." (TR would later come to envy Woodrow Wilson because Wilson got to fight the European war TR himself had pushed for.)

In 1996, the legacy-obsessed Bill Clinton spent hours with adviser Dick Morris mulling over what Clinton could do to end up in the top echelon of presidential "greats." "I envy Kennedy having an enemy," Clinton said at one point, imagining how much easier it must have been for the president to get his way by raising the specter of communist domination: "The question now is how to persuade people they could do things when they are not immediately threatened."

Luckily, Clinton decided to keep his wars small and pointless, rather than large and bloody.

Let's hope that the lure of "presidential greatness" doesn't tempt Barack Obama into rash action with Iran. After all, he's already benefiting from grade inflation. In July 2010, just 18 months into his term, a Siena Research Institute survey of 238 academics ranked Barack Obama as the 15th best president we've ever had.

One lesson to draw from their findings, Henderson and Gouchenour suggest, is that "we should stop celebrating, and try to persuade historians to stop celebrating, presidents who made unnecessary wars. One way to do so is to remember the unseen: the war that didn't happen, the war that was avoided, and the peace and prosperity that resulted."

It's also worth reminding presidents that, as Wilson, Truman, and George W. Bush discovered, unnecessary wars make presidents unpopular. While historians may eventually award extra credit for spending American blood and treasure, ordinary Americans generally don't. Here again, they come out looking smarter than the intellectuals.

Gene Healy is a vice president at the Cato Institute and the author of "The Cult of the Presidency."

NEXT: Van Jones on "so-called Libertarians": "They say they love America but they hate the people, the brown folk, the gays, the lesbians, the people with piercings"

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Historians, in general, are people who are attracted to to viewing events as epic stories full of the exploits of “great men.”

    1. To some extent we all are. I tend to think of Calvin Coolidge as one of the greatest but I do have to admit I feel like a moron when I say this in public; not just because of the incredulous looks I get from my audience but because I myself think it sounds stupid, however true it is.

      Government is like an offensive line; the way to tell it’s doing a good job is if you don’t notice it. Or if you prefer a non-sports example, government is like your large intestine.

      1. I do have to admit I feel like a moron when I say this in public

        Why? Dude was pimp-as-hell:

        Not long after their marriage, Coolidge handed her a bag with fifty-two pairs of socks in it, all of them full of holes. Grace’s reply was “Did you marry me to darn your socks?” Without cracking a smile and with his usual seriousness, Calvin answered, “No, but I find it mighty handy.”

      2. I tend to think of Calvin Coolidge as one of the greatest

        Seconded on that. One of my favorite Coolidge quotes:

        You have to stand every day three or four hours of visitors. Nine-tenths of them want something they ought not to have. If you keep dead still they will run down in three or four minutes.

      3. Woman: “I made a bet with a friend that I could get you to say more than two words.”

        Calvin Coolidge: “You lose”

      4. Coolidge was the best President of the 20th Century. I’ll say it load and proud.

        FDR and Wilson were disasters.

        1. I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people. The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the Government. Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently save means that their life will be so much the more abundant. Economy is idealism in its most practical form.

          No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward a time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people. Those who wish to proceed in that direction cannot lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more “modern,” but more ancient than those of our Revolutionary ancestors.
          ______________

          If I could do one thing, just one thing with a time machine, it would be to go back and beg him to run for President in 1928. He would have won, so no Hoover, no FDR, no global trade war, no Nazis.

          Basically, Coolidge’s decision to retire was one of the worst things that ever happened.

  2. Presidents benefit or suffer from the times that are thrust upon them. Number of deaths are a correlation, not a causation. LBJ killed a lot more americans than JFK.

    1. This.

      “Determinant” is a weird word in this context, somewhere in the twilight between correlation and causation, depending on when the determining is done. If the historians are determining greatness based on megadeaths, then it’s causation, while if the post-facto researchers are determining whether historians think a prez is great based on megadeaths, it’s merely correlation.

    2. Number of deaths are a correlation, not a causation.

      Bullshit. Unless another country starts a war, such as Japan bombing Pearl Harbor, most of the wars fought by U.S. Presidents have been elective.

      Specific people,usually sociopaths, cause wars to happen. Hitler caused WWII to happen.

      1. Unless another country starts a war, such as Japan bombing Pearl Harbor

        Well, Japan did throw the first “punch” with Pearl Harbor, but to give a schoolyard analogy that was a follow up to America following Japan around the playground poking them saying “Huh, huh? Whatcha gonna do about it?”. Yeah the US got punched in the face, but the goal of their policy up to that point was to get punched in the face. That’s what they wanted.

        Same thing happened in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964 and same thing is happening in the Persian Gulf now.

        1. You realize that Japan was subjugating southeast Asia like crazy during that time period? Yes, the US did a few things to goad them but it was inevitable that they would have attacked us eventually as we were the primary competitor in that region with the Brits on the ropes. If they’d had a few more years to secure more territory and resources it’s not at all clear we could have beaten them.

          1. The USA is not the world’s policeman. We should let southeast Asia deal with their own problems, a lesson we failed to learn during WW2 and 2 other times in the next 30 years. There is no evidence that Japan would have come after the US had their been no US-led embargo of oil (among other things). I think an attack on the USSR would be much more likely than an attack on the USA, considering the proximity and how much the two countries hated each other.

            And the idea that Japan could beat the USA in WW2 was laughable – the US beat them handily with more than half their forces on the other side of the world fighting a different front.

            1. I think an attack on the USSR would be much more likely than an attack on the USA, considering the proximity and how much the two countries hated each other.

              They tried that. The IJA got their asses handed to them by the Red Army (who were capably led by Georgi Zhukov.) As a result, they looked southward, to the Dutch East Indies and French Indochina.

              1. One wonders what would have happened if they had just met up with the Germans in India with the Nazis rolling over the Middle East rather than invading the USSR.

            2. Don’t forget that the US still had possession of the Phillipines during World War II. Even without the US oil embargo and other provocations, chances are Japan still would’ve invaded US territory in order to secure their Southeast Asian empire.

  3. Bush 43 is ranked dead last by 61% of presidential historians in a poll conducted by George Mason University.

    I guess the Iraq War didn’t help him with his dismal rank.

    1. The current and previous presidents are always the best ever or worst ever in those surveys. No one is more bereft of historical perspective than professional historians.

      I mean, worst ever? Things would have to get seriously bad for anyone to beat James Buchanan or Herbert Hoover.

      1. Someone take your handle, Professor Pomeranian?

        1. Couldn’t be. It would have been reserved by reason, and even he wouldn’t be stupid enough to have a fake email address under his handle, would he? Well…

          1. I changed my email a couple of years ago and apparently they reserved Tulpa for the previous, now-nonexistent one.

            They’ll be hearing from my lawyer2 shortly

  4. Although the profession/discipline has changed somewhat in recent decades, for most of, well, history, history has been about who won what war. When Presidents have a war to fight, if they win they have a legacy of strong leadership. If they lose (like LBJ) they appear weak and have a poor legacy. No war at all means less of a chance to appear decisive and in charge for historians to judge you by, so you might as well be Chester A. Arthur or Millard Fillmore.

    1. Millard Fillmore had a legacy – the Compromise of 1850, including the Fugitive Slave Act.

      So he’s worse than the usual stereotype – he would have been a better president if he’d actually done nothing like his reputation says.

      1. It bought 10 more years for the Great Lakes region to become an industrial powerhouse and for the Union to become an unbeatable adversary for the Confederacy.

        Also gave the free states a majority in the Senate and banned the salve trade in DC.
        But if you’re a confederate sympathizer, I could see how you’d be against it.

        1. From Fillmore’s 2nd State of the Union:

          “Friendly relations with all, but entangling alliances with none,” has long been a maxim with us. Our true mission is not to propagate our opinions or impose upon other countries our form of government by artifice or force, but to teach by example and show by our success, moderation, and justice the blessings of self-government and the advantages of free institutions. Let every people choose for itself and make and alter its political institutions to suit its own condition and convenience.

  5. I tend to think the less a president “accomplishes” the better.

    1. That applies to the legislative and judicial branches as well.

      I can think of some fantastical accomplishments that the judicial could get it’s back into, but it is unlikely that it will, so it should just sit on it’s thumbs.

    2. And here is where the opinions of historians become meaningless. Generally, presidents are judged on how many laws they passed, how much of their personal agenda they were able to shove through congress, how many international crises (usually at least partially of their own making) they confronted, etc. In presidential historian parlance, the Civil War was a great “accomplishment”, Social Security was a great “accomplishment”, WWII was a great “accomplishment”, the Cuban missile crisis was a great “accomplishment”, the ACA is a great “accomplishment”, etc. There’s certainly a solid debate to be had whether those “accomplishments” are really a good measure of the effectiveness of a president in executing his constitutionally defined duties.

  6. It’s also worth reminding presidents that, as Wilson, Truman, and George W. Bush discovered, unnecessary wars make presidents unpopular.

    I’m not sure the Korean War is now viewed as either unnecessary or unpopular, when the alternative would have left all of Korea looking like North Korea today. Truman was unpopular when he left office, but had a resurgence a few years back.

    While historians may eventually award extra credit for spending American blood and treasure, ordinary Americans generally don’t. Here again, they come out looking smarter than the intellectuals.
    Washington? Lincoln? Both hugely popular with ordinary Americans.

    1. The problem with Korea is that Truman’s Sec of State (Acheson) gave a speech about U.S. vital interests in Asia, but omitted South Korea. Then the Commies invaded. What if Truman had indicated he saw South Korea as an ally worth defending? We could still have had a Korean stalemate, but perhaps without the hot war.

    2. the alternative would have left all of Korea looking like North Korea today

      Proof? Vietnam isn’t doing too bad these days.

      And in any case, it’s none of our business what South Korea looks like. Certainly not worth 50,000 dead Americans.

      1. 38,000 dead Americans.

        And that is a far easier thing to say in 2012 than it was in 1950.

        I think Truman was a terrible President and a dolt. He let his Sec Def cut the guts out of the Army and watched it turn into nothing but occupation police (MacArthur and others bear responsibility too). They weren’t needed because we had A-bombs. Then he gets into a war and doesn’t have the guts to use nukes. What a fool.

  7. Why the picture of TR? We fought no wars during his Presidency. He even earned a Nobel Prize (back when that meant something) for negotiating the end of the Russo-Japanese War.

    1. Actually, the US fought a bloody war of occupation in the Phillipines under Roosevelt, much bloodier than the Spanish-American War which gave us the possession of the islands in the first place.

  8. People think Lincoln’s the greatest President even though he murdered over 600,000 Americans by deliberately provoking a violent confrontation with several Southern states.

  9. Liberals should love W. He governed as a 20th century democrat.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.